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Erasing the state of Israel illustration.(Photo by: OLGA LEVI)
Alternative reality: The 'What Ifs' of Jewish History
A history professor delves into the world of Jewish counterfactual history – like what if Israel had been established in East Africa?
What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism is an exploration of alternative historical scenarios, a type of study going by various names such as counterfactual history, allohistory or virtual history.

It’s a thriving field, bringing together two groups of unusual bedfellows: fiction writers and academic scholars. The fiction writers – many of them sci-fi authors – get to stretch their vivid imaginations and sense for the possible, changing at least one historical factor to see how things might have played out. The historians get to probe more deeply what actually happened, and whether event X really can be posited to have caused outcome Y. Both groups create a “point of divergence” in which things proceed in a way that is different from the way they did in real life.

Though dating all the way back to Greek times, the genre is enjoying rising popularity in our time. The pilot for The Man In the High Castle, a 2015 Web television series describing a reality in which the Nazis won World War II and took over America, is Amazon’s most watched to date. I, too, have been fascinated by “what if” questions for many years now, particularly Jewish ones.

The book’s editor, Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, a history professor at Fairfield University, has not disappointed. He’s gathered 16 articles of alternative Jewish histories ranging from the redemptive to the provocative to the entirely fantastic, and they make for a diverse and satisfying read for the most part.

Some of the articles are works of pure fiction, jumping straight into the alternative reality. Here, if one lacks the requisite knowledge, it’s hard to discern what’s fact and what’s not. (Those essays that give us the fictional part in italics are much easier on the brain.) I found myself laughing out loud at Adam Rovner’s imaginative descriptions of the “New Judean State,” founded in 1919 in East Africa per the “Uganda Plan.” It boasts cities named Zikhron Herzl and Beit Zangwill, as well as Lake Chamberlain, and its marketing materials make tongue-incheek reference to its own “counterfactual” novels locating the Jewish state in Palestine.

I was quite upset being made to imagine a Judaism with the Exodus story expunged, as described by Steven Weitzman.

It felt akin to ripping out the beating heart of Judaism. Perhaps I’ve simply spent too many years declaring the most counterfactual statement Judaism has to offer: “Had we not exited Egypt, we, our children and grandchildren would all be enslaved to Pharaoh today” – an unlikely scenario, obviously, and meant to make a point.

It was gripping to read the sequential articles covering the State of Israel and the events in Germany preceding its establishment.

Had the Arabs in Palestine cooperated more with the British, had the Weimar Republic survived, had Hitler been assassinated or the Holocaust been averted, what would have changed in Jewish history? A State of Judea with Einstein as president? Perchance “Filastin-Eretz Yisrael,” a binational state? Would Germany’s Jews have become just another German “tribe”? Would one million Jews have been killed, even had the Final Solution not been set in motion? These essays are juxtaposed to remind us of the chain of events that brought us to where we are today – events that, with some small difference, might have turned out very differently. We see how the immense desire of the Jews, on the backdrop of pogroms and Holocaust, to regain their ancient homeland was matched by a series of highly fragile circumstances enabling such a thing to manifest in actuality.

Indeed, Derek Jonathan Penslar’s imagining of a Christian Templer State in the Holy Land implies that the Christian desire and connection to Israel would not have sufficed to withstand all the pressures from within and without.

Only the Jewish people in its land, the two elements intertwined, create the intense, determinedly persistent reality of Israel as we know it today. As Kenneth W.

Stein writes: “Zionism was not just a movement; it was a moment in Jewish history when the Jews decided to take destiny into their own hands...” and, I would add, when destiny responded positively.

In his introduction, Rosenfeld explains that, traditionally, we Jews have not been “into” counterfactual history, because we are too invested in bestowing meaning upon what did happen. Reading this book with my Jewish eyes did bolster my experience of Jewish history as a purposeful unfolding. I know that, for many, the universe is random. But for me, this book, in highlighting the “what might have been,” ultimately strengthened my faith in “what actually was”; that there is meaning and direction in the time line from all possible time lines that brought us here, however difficult and traumatic it was. To echo René Bloch’s closing remark in her essay: “Counterfactual speculating... while admittedly hypothetical, helps us understand the deeper forces that profoundly shaped Judaism.”

I am only sorry that the discussion did not continue to post-1948 – the Six Day War, Rabin’s assassination and more. Perhaps all that is yet to come in volume II?

Yael Unterman is the author of Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar and The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing.
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